I grew up in a nightmare. Yes, we were that family. Drama, fights, threats, suicide attempts, break ups, make ups, then wash, rinse, repeat. I’m not that person anymore and we are no longer that family. We’re healthy. We love, laugh and there’s never a raised voice. We value peace, and peace is wonderful in life.
In fiction, it’s death.
As an artist, sometimes my domestication scares me.
I listen to all kinds of music. I have everything from Pavarotti to Coltrane to Ozzy to Eminem on my iPod. I think that’s because real music, great music is easy to recognize whether its in the form of an aria, a riff or a rap. When I was on Whitbey Island someone mentioned how poetry has really suffered in modern years, but I disagree. I think its changed forms if we are willing to be open-minded. I believe rap is a modern reinvention of poetry and no, it isn’t flowery and enlightened. It’s ugly, dark, and often offensive.
But so is life.
Art isn’t always supposed to be pretty. It’s to challenge us, make us think, shove us out of our comfort zones and challenge what we believe.
Now I’ll be blunt. There is a lot of rap music that’s junk (but that isn’t exclusive to rap). But, beneath a lot of the profanity-laden misogynistic drivel we see some amazing pieces of urban artistry, and I believe they have a lot to teach us if we’ll be open enough to listen. To me, Eminem’s songs strike at the heart of the urban plight, and whether we love him or hate him, his music is powerful.
I only like a handful of Eminem’s songs, but the few I like? I can never listen to enough. They make me emotional every time. Perhaps it’s a tether back to that old life. I don’t know. It permits me to remember what it felt like to be out of control and have no real answers. It puts me back in tune with the craziness that births the best stories.
It would be madness to live my current life this way, but as an artist I DO need to remember the crushing weight of a string of bad choices. The fear it ignites. The panic. The dread that makes you chew off your own leg to escape instead of looking for a key. I have to feel that again for my voice and my characters to be authentic.
So here’s a list of what Eminem has taught me (and I will use some lyrics from my favorite songs Love the Way You Lie and Lose Yourself):
Life is Messy
Good fiction involves a push and pull of a lot of agendas. There are no clean answers, no choices that don’t have consequences. Sometimes there isn’t a right answer, and a protagonist has to merely look for the rightest answer and be brave enough to face what follows (which is what transforms him into a hero).
I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like
and right now there’s a steel knife in my windpipe
I can’t breathe but I still fight while I can fight
As long as the wrong feels right it’s like I’m in flight.
High off of love, drunk from my hate
It’s like I’m huffin’ paint and I love it the more I suffer
I suffocate and right before I’m about to drown, she resuscitates me
She *&^%$ hates me, and I love it
Wait, where you going? I’m leaving you. No you ain’t.
Come back, we’re running right back, here we go again.
It’s so insane, ’cause when it’s good it’s goin’ great
I’m Superman with the wind at his back, she’s Lois Lane.
But when it’s bad it’s awful.
I feel so ashamed. (Love the Way You Lie)
In these lyrics we see the push and pull, the tug of feelings of wanting to do what’s right yet always seeming to choose the wrong path. Our characters need to do the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t need characters that are too dumb to live, but at the same time, if they always say the right things and make the right choices, we can’t relate. We can’t root for them to do better.
Great characters are deeply flawed, but they become heroes because, in spite of the odds, they rise above those flaws and finally DO change. Great characters need (forgivable) flaws.
In Joy Luck Club each of the women suffer from fear; fear of standing up to abuse, fear of wanting, fear of disapproval and this fear generates the story tension.
In The Divine secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood Vivi (the antagonist)’s childhood is filled with abuse from her crazy Catholic mother who’s jealous of the attention her husband gives Vivi. Vivi also loses her true love in war when she’s only a teen. This fear of being vulnerable later divides her relationship with her daughter, Sidda(protagonist), and it fuels her abusive behavior. She tries to be a good mom and wife, the opposite of her nutso mother, but her fear of being hurt just propels her into another bad choice and another. Can this be repaired?
Great Fiction is Birthed from Poor Choices
Now I know we said things, did things that we didn’t mean
And we fall back into the same patterns, the same routine
But your temper’s just as bad as mine is, you’re same as me
But when it comes to love you’re just as blinded.
Baby please come back, it wasn’t you, Baby it was me
Maybe our relationship isn’t as crazy as it seems.
Maybe that’s what happens when a tornado meets a volcano
All I know is I love you too much to walk away (Love the Way You Lie).
This is the heart of the story, realizing love is there, it’s worth staying, but can it survive before the couple destructs? They have to grow, they must grow or they’re trapped. The conflict arises because no one is making good, sane or healthy choices and that is the beating heart of strong fiction.
Look at your characters. Are they too self-actualized? Too sane? Too level-headed? A lot of the page-turning conflict will be generated by personal agendas and baggage. Dig in to that place that scares you, and that’s where the great stories hide.
What are your character’s secrets? How do those secrets prevent good choices? How does pain from the past make decisions in the present so hard?
In Sworn to Silence the protagonist committed a horrible crime when she was young. Years later, she is the Chief of Police. Her secret keeps her from being able to be forthright in the investigation of a possible serial killer. Her failure to disclose only stalls the investigation as the body count rises, but if she confesses what she did, she could go to jail. The secret tinges her perception and leads her away from the actual killer. Guilt is driving her, not strong investigative instincts.
Great Stories Require High Stakes
Another of my favorite Eminem songs is Lose Yourself. This song is so rich because we feel the pressure to succeed because we know the price of failure.
Mom I love but this trailer’s got to go
I cannot grow old in Salem’s Lot, so here I go, it’s my shot
Feet fail me not, this might be the only opportunity I got.
We know that he feels trapped. He can’t pay the bills and provide for the family. He’s in a trailer and on food stamps and all he knows is there is ONE way of this hell, out of this generational curse. One ticket for him and his family or it’s death, prison or minimum wage slavery. The stakes rise and so does the pressure.
What happens if your protagonist fails? What are the stakes? In Winter’s Bone Ree Dolly’s father cooks meth. When he fails to show up for his court date, the family stands to lose their home and land and be forced out on the street. Ree must find her father, alive or dead to save her mentally ill mother and two young siblings.
Remember, the higher the stakes, the better the story.
Here is the video to Love the Way You Lie (caution: adult situations and language)
What are your thoughts? What songs do you use to remind you of emotions you need for your art? Do you feel song is a powerful tool for writing? I never listen to music while writing. I like quiet. But I DO listen to music as preparation. What about you? Do you also have a weird variety of songs in your collection? What music inspires you?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of February I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
January’s WINNER is Yesenia Vargas. Please send your 5000 word Word document to kristen @ wana intl dot com or your query letter or synopsis (limit 750 words). Congratulations!
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